A DAY BEHIND THE CURTAIN
The most respected job at Belarus State puppet theater is to be puppet-led
Perhaps, puppet theater is the only where day begins early as it gives morning performances. Laughter, singing and voices are heard here: now the theater has a rehearsal hall, which is always busy. This year there was a new draft in the theater with 7 graduates of Academy of arts who are now being introduced into the repertoire. This is why you can hear shriek of the three piglets, or snarl of the cowardly lion of “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz”, or the song of the Little Red Riding-hood.
— If we take into account that entire theater company is of 20 people, 7 young actors are a serious reinforcement, — says Alexei Leliavsky, main stage director of the theater and head of the course where the young actors graduated from. — They’re smart guys and I’m glad they will start in the new better premises.
Before that the theater was only several rooms adjoining the stage. Joinery and property workshops used to nestle in basement, and some puppets were stored in a barn. Theater personnel do not like to recall the times when they were so crowded. Luckily, times change and the stage was improved.
— The stage is exactly like the deck of a destroyer, — I hear someone’s
bass voice behind. — I had enough swabbing and can remember every single inch of it.
An old man with a spade beard in vivid Hawaiian shirt is Vladislav Vlasov, the legend of the theater. Only his white snow beard brings some disharmony into the image and doesn’t match his sonorous voice and martial bearing.
Vladislav Vlasov, the oldest actor and the irremovable occupant of Schweik role, is full of zest and humor in his 76. Through all his life he collected theater stories and jokes. Further I make my way through the backstage accompanied by his countless stories.
In fact, State Puppet Theater was established in Gomel in 1938 and moved to Minsk in 1950. Present building has been hosting the theater since 1965.
— The old stage was so worn that we were afraid to fall through, — Vladislav Vlasov recalls. — Now it’s for ages. Probably, my burial service will be held here…
— Why so gloomy? — I ask.
— No, I’m not going to die yet, — says Vladislav, laughing. — Like my favorite character Schwek, I view life as a joke and laugh at it. “Why, who can invent jokes? Those canned in prison” as Schweik used to say.
Everyone knows when Vladislav Vlasov is rehearsing, for his laughter followed by others can be heard all over the theater. He is the custodian of live theater history.
— Next year it will be 50 years of my work in the puppet theater. I can remember we used to cabin in opera theater behind a thin curtain. All companies were there at that time — the philharmonic, ensembles — all. We had no our own stage for a long time. We toured in schools and daycare facilities, then used to go somewhere back-country in a wagon, sitting right on stage sets or puppet crates. Performed in village clubs with light from an oil-lamp. And we used to hear questions from old ladies: “I see you play dolls all the time, so when do you work?”
State Puppet Theater was established in Gomel in 1938 and moved to Minsk in 1950. it Is a winner of numerous international prizez. toured in Germany, Poland, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and other countriesQuite extraordinary acquaintance I made of Vladislav Vlasov! Yet puppets are main characters in the theater and life spins around them. They can be found everywhere: at chief stager’s desk, on hangers in the passage, on tables in the property workshop and even in the checkroom. Though puppets employed in plays are stored in wardrobes, covered or placed in coffers. And the rest of theater space is given to veteran puppets. Soon they will be displayed in a museum. It is not prepared yet and many “vets” need thorough treatment. And this can’t be done without Oleg Nikolaichik, chief puppet maker. As a matter of fact, his position reads as “set designer and puppet constructor”. Actually, he is a real toymaker Geppetto, and wears same kindly smile. He’s been in the theater for 40 years already. Absolutely all puppets are his creatures. Of course, property personnel is quite numerous, with artistic designers and sculptors, but only Oleg Vladimirovich Nikolaichik knows how to make a puppet move, dance, or just live. A dozen of puppets from “The Adventures of Pinocchio” are on the tables in his room — these need restoration before they go to museum.
I take faded and piteous Pierrot from the heap of puppets. I swear any child would give anything for such puppet. Its small hands and legs are so flexible, wooden joints bend as natural and little boots start dancing over the tabletop. I feel strange — it’s living!
— What did you expect?— Oleg Nikolaichik smiles.
— A real actor always feels his puppet, — says Vladislav Vlasov.
My Pierrot makes several clumsy steps. I am being prompted: “Follow it, it’s experienced”. I cannot tell who is flying to whose support. Jigger actors say this is an equivalent creative process, when only half of success is up to the actor.
Old puppets are superannuated to museum. No one dares to recycle or throw them away. Some puppets go to children theater studios, others await for a place in museum, hanging in the checkroom. The museum is not prepared yet and puppets that are already there lie just on the floor. Indicative: all “vets” are operational. The oldest one — Bayan from “The Bedbug” is a long-liver even in human terms as he was created in early 1950’s. Yet it is fitter than some humans of its age: its papier-mache head can blink, open mouth and grimace. Only the flap is frayed and the knitted costume is moth-tainted. But they didn’t change the costume to preserve its historic look.
I descended to the “affiliate” of puppet museum in the checkroom. Several dozens of big man-size puppets. And the “ageless theater-goer” as it is called here, is sitting on an ottoman near the entrance. Some think it is a seat attendant, others believe it is watchwoman. However, nearly everyone who enters the hall, greets it. As a matter of fact, this is a stooge doll from “The Master and Margarita”. According to stager’s plan, several dolls were seated in the audience hall. In certain moments they stood up, said something (with embedded speakers, naturally), or laughed. They say spectators used to sink into faint. Small wonder: if this busty beauty would sit in a tram, ticket collectors would probably ask it (her) for fee. Yana Ageenko, actress and custodian of the museum, recalls this play with admiration: — I think this was one of our most extravagant and vivid plays.
— And did you play?
— With pleasure! However, I had a small part…
— Which one?
— The tram-driver girl — I used to cut Berlioz’ head every evening.
“The Master and Margarita” was also the peak of property mastery art. One cannot imagine more lifelike and caricature people (I can’t help writing “people” instead of “puppets”) than these.
— It was perestroika and we had poor financing. We dressed all puppets in our own clothes: all theater personnel used to bring what they could — a jacket, a pair of shoes…
In fact, the puppet theater has always been famous with its mastery, not budgets.
— Our expenditure ceiling is $6 thousand. This was the cost of “It’s over with Paris”. That was a serious lacuna in our budget, — says Leliavsky.
“Still, who’s in control — the actor or the puppet?” Everyone here answers this question hind-foremost. First they devotedly discourse upon the animateness of puppets, then say puppets are useless without wire pullers. And only Valentina Prazheeva admits easily, with no fear to belittle herself:
— Each actor has his magic puppet that overrules. My one is Eve from “Divine Comedy”. Though I do not play in this piece anymore, I have this supernatural feeling of someone alive near, each time I play with it in concerts. Undoubtedly, Eve used to manipulate me.
Officially, the theater has one day off on Mondays.
— I love Mondays! — exclaims Valentina Prazheeva. — You can take your time to go to laundry, to bank, or to pay a visit to radio station.
Naturally, puppet theater actors are humans like any other. And have right to leisure equal to other citizens. Yet everyone here is accustomed to have unusual working days with the hottest time on weekends.
— Almost all our actors live in creative families, — says Valentina Prazheeva. — For instance, my husband is a musician. You know, it takes much to live such life with evening performances, endless tours, and shopping on weekends, when most performances are on.
There are many things in the puppet theater incomprehensible for others. For example, all doors are always open here. Theater people do not have a habit to lock doors. What for? We aren’t strangers here. Again, we raise our children backstage in stage aisle. Before the repair there was a large boulder in the aisle — so we seated our offsprings on it to hold them in sight while making up, performing or rehearsing. Small wonder there are many dynasties in the theater. And chief stage director himself takes after his father: Anatoly Leliavsky had been number one here for many years, now it’s Alexei in charge.
— However, my son doesn’t support the idea of a theatrical dynasty, — Alexei Leliavsky says pitifully. — He does immunology and said he wanted to have “normal” profession…
Only late in the evening Alexei Leliavsky is available for communication. They leave him alone only for rare moments when he’s busy at computer working with schedules, tour data, rehearsal timetables and repertoire.
— Are you happy with the repair?
— Couldn’t be otherwise. Yet I want more: to have the hall repaired as the theater should face spectators, not vice versa. I wish the fishpond was working again to let people throw coins in it to come back some day…
— But there are no coins anymore!
— Well, at least underground chips…
Stage director is the first to play all puppets not to let actors say that his ideas are beyond human abilities. Alexei Anatolievich says he loves all puppets in the theater.
— What is a puppet destiny? It should be happy if it isn’t thrown into garbage, right?
— Why, no. Thank God, we have good storage conditions today. Yet each puppet has its destiny and soul as puppets are always parts of someone’s soul. Not someone’s — they are part of many people’s lives — artists, stage directors, property masters and actors. Puppets absorb soul energy and I have a terrible feeling of losing a part of my soul when I see one thrown away or left in oblivion. Of all, the most terrible view is a disposed puppet.
— That is, when you go along the street and see a puppet in a dustbin…
— ...I take it and bring it to the theater. I wish to stage a play about lost, broken and crippled puppets some day. However, I don’t have enough of them. I still keep my son’s toys. I just cannot throw them away as he used to play them, they are a part of his life, so we just give some to people.
— However, children play different toys today, don’t they?
— You mean Barbie? They are not puppets but items designed to be purchased and to be proud of. And puppets are supernatural beings and possess souls. This is why there are so many old puppets in museums over the world.
by Svetlana Litskevich